On the Cover: “For the better part of a week, nearly every man, woman, and child in Gander and the surrounding smaller towns stopped what they were doing so they could help. They placed their lives on hold for a group of strangers and asked for nothing in return. They affirmed the basic goodness of man at a time when it was easy to doubt such humanity still existed.”
When thirty-eight jetliners bound for the United States were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland, on September 11, 2001, due to the closing of United States airspace, the citizens of this small community were called upon to come to the aid of more than six thousand displaced travelers.
The people of Gander were asked to aid and care for these distraught travelers, as well as for thousands more, and their response was truly extraordinary. Oz Fudge, the town constable, searched all over Gander for a flight-crew member so that he could give her a hug as a favor to her sister, a fellow law enforcement officer who managed to reach him by phone. Eithne Smith, an elementary-school teacher, helped the passengers staying at her school put together letters to family members all over the world, which she then faxed. Bonnie Harris, Vi Tucker, and Linda Humby, members of a local animal protection agency, crawled into the jets’ cargo holds to feed and care for all of the animals on the flights. Hundreds of people put their names on a list to take passengers into their homes and give them a chance to get cleaned up and relax.
The Day the World Came to Town is a positively heartwarming account of the citizens of Gander and its surrounding communities and the unexpected guests who were welcomed with exemplary kindness.
I was drawn to this book entirely because of it’s subject matter of 9/11. To keep this in perspective, I should share that in 2001 I was twelve years old. While I was aware things were going on, I didn’t really understand them, and certainly didn’t understand the significance of it all. I had also never considered what active roles Canada had taken that day and in the days that followed.
The novel does a great job of relaying a lot of history in a short amount of space. I didn’t know that the US actually shut down it’s entire airspace, and that planes already in the air needed to find alternative places to land. Multiple Canadian airports took planes in, including Gander. I also learned that Gander had a military background with a fully functioning airbase, which eventually was transformed into a civilian airport and on 9/11 was able to accommodate 38 jetliners, all parked end to end on the tarmac. I was fascinated by how the emergency was handled, and the many people in Gander that were mobilized to make this possible.
Gander Airport after 9/11
Putting all that history aside, this novel really focuses on the people. I really enjoyed that DeFede was able to capture such a variety of stories of the different people trying to fly to the States, their backgrounds, and their feelings of finding themselves in Gander. There was a surprising amount of emotion in this book, from stress over the current events, to unending gratitude, and at times even bouts of laughter. There were so many little details that make these stories memorable – such as Newfoundland families donating every towel and bed sheet that they owned, or Americans participating in a good old-fashioned Newfoundland Screech-in, kissing a days-old cod. DeFede is an incredible storyteller, and many of these stories really stuck with me.
I had never considered how much risk Canada or other countries took when accepting these planes. Nor had I ever considered how much fear these people would have, landing in a tiny place that they had never heard of, not knowing when they would get home. These stories of Newfoundlanders opening their arms to strangers and doing anything it took to make their stay easier are incredibly heartwarming and moving. This novel is good for so many reasons, and I sincerely recommend reading it.
And there’s one image that I will probably never get out of my head: weary travelers coming off of planes and seeing a giant world map hanging on the wall with an arrow pointing to a tiny island off of Canada and the words, You Are Here.
Rating: 5 / 5
“O’Reilly was privately terrified that there would be an accident. It wasn’t a question of his not having confidence in the ability of his controllers. The problem in his mind was that there were too many planes and, because they all had to land as quickly as possible, too little time to see them all in safely.
Without being called, off-duty controllers started arriving at the center within a half hour of the attacks. Eventually every controller working a screen had at least one backup and a supervisor to help. There was no real plan or thought given to which planes should land where. The controllers started dividing planes up among a handful of airports that could accommodate them. St John’s and Stephenville in Newfoundland, Moncton in New Brunswick, Halifax in Nova Scotia, as well as the airports in larger cities like Montreal, Quebec, and even Toronto. The key for O’Reilly, however, was Gander.” (p 23)
“O’Donnell had one rule for the toys: nothing violent. No war toys. No guns. Not now, not with everything that had happened on September 11. Instead, O’Donnell loaded up on dolls and stuffed animals and board games and trucks and race cars. She even managed to find a few handheld computer games. She made sure that every toy that needed batteries had them. They filled up the back of a fire truck and raced home to Gander. The fire truck went from shelter to shelter, handing out toys to kids who would come running to greet them. Each day it made a loop of the shelters to make sure none of the kids was missed. Members of Gander’s volunteer fire department took turns going to the different schools, churches, and lodges so they could see the look on the kids’ faces when they pulled up. O’Donnell wasn’t sure how many toys they gave away or how much it cost. She just liked the feeling of being a Newfie Mrs. Claus.” ( p 150)